John Mara has gotten quite good at these end-of-season soliloquies espousing hope for the future. Unfortunately, the Giants’ president and CEO has had a lot of practice.
Ten seasons have come and gone since Mara hoisted the team’s fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft in Indianapolis after the Giants’ second upset of the Patriots in the Super Bowl. And in that time, his team has gone back to the playoffs just once – a one-and-done in Green Bay in Ben McAdoo’s first season in 2016.
Ever the optimist, Mara has tried to put a positive spin on what lies in the future, only to realize after the fact that he has essentially put lipstick on a pig. Mara delivered yet another post-mortem after yet another losing season, and again looked ahead with a sense of hope.
This time, it felt different.
This time – albeit it with one important asterisk that we’ll get to in a minute – it didn’t feel like empty promises to assuage a fan base growing increasingly impatient after a decade of disappointment. This time, it felt like there truly is something to look forward to other than losing records.
Much of that optimism is rooted in the man Mara introduced a year ago Thursday in a spacious first-floor stadium club at MetLife Stadium. Joe Judge was a shocking selection when the Giants named the 38-year-old former Patriots special teams coach to lead one of the NFL’s flagship franchises. With no previous head coaching experience, Mara took a gamble on a guy who was highly recommended by Bill Belichick and who reminded the Giants’ owner of another unlikely coach who turned the franchise around.
Yes, there was some Bill Parcells in Judge, and Mara could feel it. Even if there was some skepticism about such an out-of-left-field candidate.
Record-wise, this was not what Mara had wanted. Even though the Giants were in the divisional race to the final weekend, 6-10 is nothing to boast about. But there was meaningful progress once the team found its footing after an 0-5 start. And finishing the season 5-3 with a 23-19 over the Cowboys to keep their playoff hopes alive – until the Eagles ended those when Doug Pederson put Nate Sudfeld in the lineup in the second half – was significant.
"I thought Joe did a very good job considering what he had to deal with," Mara said. "When you think about, you have a brand new head coach at 38 years of age, and look what he was asked to deal with: a pandemic, no off-season program, no minicamps, no preseason games, virtual meetings, protocols that kept changing, and he loses his best player [Saquon Barkley] in Week 2."
Judge never seemed to flinch despite those understandably complicated hurdles.
"I thought he showed great leadership, great adaptability," Mara said. "Nothing seemed to faze him during the year. If something had to change, he just made the change. I thought he showed real leadership and great determination the entire time. I thought he represented our franchise the way I want our head coach to represent our franchise. I thought he established a great foundation and a great culture. I think it’s so important."
Mara saw enough to be encouraged about what lies ahead – even if that takes some imagination.
"It's always a certain leap of faith when you're coming off of a season where you only won six games," he said. "But, just the quality of the players that we have in the locker room, the fact that they all seem to buy into Joe's philosophy, to Joe's message. I just think there's a different feeling in the building now than there has been in a number of years, and I think that's why I'm optimistic."
Now, about that asterisk.
While Mara can be reasonably confident he has the right coach, it remains to be seen whether he has the right quarterback. Daniel Jones showed modest improvement in terms of ball security and understanding defenses, yet his overall production – 11 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions – leaves you wondering about his upside. Judge swears by Jones, and Mara accepts what his coach tells him.
But it’s what the eyes tell you about Jones, and he doesn’t pass that test just yet. Especially in a league in which it has become so easy to have a vibrant passing game and score way more than the Giants’ 17.5-point average in 2020. If Jones makes meaningful strides next year, then this coach-quarterback combination can be a latter-day version of Parcells and Phil Simms.
If not, then Judge will have to look elsewhere and experience an inevitable delay in Mara’s timetable for a sustained turnaround.
"I think we've established a basis for a foundation for success going forward," Mara said. "There is a different feeling in the building now than there has been in a number of years. That's why I'm optimistic."
Time will tell if that’s legit.
Or if it’s just more false hope.